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Connected: SAFE and SSPs Working Together

By Beth Schaefer and Mandi Schook
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SSPs and SAFE Programs Can Make a Greater Impact Together

Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan® programs were established in 1981 to oversee the population management of select species within AZA-accredited facilities and to enhance conservation of focal species in the wild. As SSP efforts grew, it became clear that it would be difficult to maintain population management and conservation efforts as long-term, sustainable operations of SSPs. Today, there are nearly 500 SSP programs and about 20 percent of them support conservation projects.

AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction is a collaborative conservation program among AZA members and their field partners. The program was inspired by the efforts of SSP programs to build support for field conservation, but worked to build a complementary framework that expanded capacity for cross-cutting and interdisciplinary conservation by AZA members.

Since its launch, SAFE has expanded eligibility criteria, offering greater opportunity for SSPs to work with existing and new partners in the AZA community to advance in situ conservation goals. 

Clarifying Committee Roles

With the addition of SAFE, the overlapping roles of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee and the Field Conservation Committee became unclear. In 2019, AZA’s Board of Directors clarified the roles of the committees supporting population management and field conservation work, as well as changed the names of each committee to reflect these roles. Last April, Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of AZA, issued a statement from the Board that the Animal Population Management Committee (formerly Wildlife Conservation Management Committee) and Wildlife Conservation Committee (formerly Field Conservation Committee) would be working together in a plan to transition existing species conservation initiatives to the SAFE framework

As part of a response to committee alignments, the WCC began to survey the conservation-oriented SSPs that had proposed a SAFE species in 2014. This allowed the WCC to dive deeper into the goals of these SSPs and learn how SAFE could facilitate achieving their goals. For this article, we also reached out to a number of SAFE program leaders that partner with SSPs to reach their conservation objectives. Here’s what we found.

Myths Dispelled

Many SSP coordinators felt that proposing a SAFE species, whether again or for the first time, was just not worth-it. Going through the efforts of proposing a SAFE species, only to be rejected seemed like a lot of work with little to no reward. Others felt that only species with the greatest likelihood of conservation success would be approved.

In the new member-driven model, SAFE species are proposed and run by members, empowering them to work with colleagues as is appropriate for the needs of the species. Often times, SAFE species programs are already working with or are proposed by SSPs, adding more resources to their conservation efforts. While SAFE species are approved by the WCC, all species with thoughtful proposals that meet eligibility criteria, are approved.

There can be several benefits of partnerships between SAFE and SSP programs. For Dave Collins, director of forests and animal behavior at Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Spotted Turtle SSP coordinator, the transition to a SAFE American turtle program was a no brainer. 

The SSP already worked with many non-AZA conservation partners. Collins realized that establishing a better picture of genetic diversity and building genetic libraries would not only aid law enforcement in correctly placing confiscated turtles from illegal wildlife trade, but also help the SSP understand the origins and relatedness of many turtles in AZA. The connection between field conservation and sustainability of the AZA population prompted Collins to look into SAFE and read about the One Plan Approach, an approach used in conservation planning by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and one adopted in the SAFE framework.

He realized developing a SAFE program would combine resources of multiple facilities and benefit common goals. Posting the SAFE American turtle program on the AZA website prompted 13 additional facilities to express interest in joining, effectively doubling those involved.

Collins also saw clear benefits to leveraging the AZA brand.

“The Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles (CCITT), which includes both law enforcement agencies and zoos in the Northeastern region, drafted a call to action before World Turtle Day,” Collins said. “AZA became an endorsing partner of that effort and handled the announcements.  It had a huge distribution, and resulted in over 600 signatories and 18 facilities signing on. That wouldn’t have happened without being a SAFE program.”      

Michael Ogle, curator of herpetology at the Knoxville Zoo, in Knoxville, Tenn., and chair of the SAFE radiated tortoise program and SSP coordinator for 12 years, described the current SAFE framework as similar to the original idea for SSPs, just set for modern times. 

“If our members are already working together on field projects, this is an easy way to build on those partnerships and expand to other members. Which in the end is what we all want to do: help the species we love in the area that matters most—their home.” 

Stronger Together

While the roles of SAFE and SSPs are intertwined, it should be mentioned that a SAFE species program leader does not have to be an SSP coordinator. Often the two programs work hand in hand, dividing the work among two separate committees. A successful example of this is the Orangutan SSP where Ronda Schwetz, executive zoo director of Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison Wis., and co-leader of the SAFE orangutan program, is also on the SSP steering committee. This allows close collaboration between the two groups and a seamless transition to a SAFE program.

Dr. Corrine Kendall, curator of conservation and research at North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., and program leader of the SAFE African vulture program says that collaboration with the Raptor Taxon Advisory Group has helped.

“SAFE raised awareness about existing conservation activities, helped to unify members around a shared strategic plan, and allowed for greater consistency in messaging for education efforts related to African vultures across AZA facilities.” 

Blanding's turtle

The SAFE North American monarch program utilized the expertise of the Terrestrial Invertebrate TAG to create best practices for rearing butterflies, thereby avoiding overlap and redundancy in the SAFE plan by directing questions in that area to the TAG.

“Becoming a SAFE program allows for more efficient coordination of activities, resources, and communications to help partners work toward shared goals for the species,” said Dr. Lily Maynard, conservation programs manager for Disney Conservation in Orlando, Fla., and SAFE North American monarch program leader. “SAFE provides a platform for highlighting conservation successes via partnerships between zoos and aquariums that reach farther than individual organizations can go.”

SAFE program leaders also felt that the role of SSPs in helping to maintain healthy populations for education and awareness efforts was vital to drive home the conservation message and actions for the public. Ogle found that SAFE also amplified awareness of in-situ partnerships with the Turtle Survival Alliance. 

“When the massive confiscation happened in 2018, we were able to get the word out, and the AZA community showed up with funding, staff, and supplies in droves. It was great,” she said. “Several zoos have also joined the Radiated Tortoise SSP to exhibit this species since we launched as a SAFE program.”

It’s All Connected

Program leaders felt the role of SSPs in SAFE conservation programs remains as important as ever. Stacia A Pieroni, conservation manager at Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., and Ronda Schwetz, felt that having the SSP involved as active advisors with both programs understanding and supporting each other’s mission and goals was critical, and that working closely with the SSP gave them a better SAFE program plan and more participation. Dave Collins agreed that continued coordination between SSP and SAFE programs is important.

For example, genetics of wild confiscations may indicate the need to manage a certain number of genetic groups in AZA to maintain diversity, and he is finding that data management approaches for SSP populations might also be useful for in situ populations. SAFE program leaders also felt that the role of SSPs in helping to maintain healthy populations for education and awareness efforts was vital to drive home the conservation message and actions for the public.                       

What is it Really About?

From WCC’s survey of SSPs, many of the SSP respondents that had proposed a SAFE species in 2014 expressed little understanding of what SAFE was really about. Many of these leaders had not heard about SAFE because their TAGs typically do not meet at AZA Annual or Mid-Year conferences, where most SAFE information and updates are shared. Both committees are working to understand what a strategic communications plan and information sharing could look like. 

Among articles like this that can promote information sharing and transparency, another potential solution is for WCC liaisons to attend TAG meetings occurring outside of AZA conferences to present on SAFE, and be available more broadly to answer questions, clarify misperceptions, and lend support to leaders who are considering championing a SAFE program.

Looking Ahead

The survey informed areas of future focus for the WCC and the APM Committee in supporting SSPs in proposing SAFE species. Moving forward, both committees are working together to refine a productive and accessible reporting structure, understand how to increase focus on population management but still highlight how animal programs can support broader conservation efforts, and understand how conservation planning through SAFE can help TAGs weigh factors of species prioritization. 

We are continually learning and look forward to making continued progress in supporting our collective conservation and management goals.

Sage Advice

For SSPs considering becoming SAFE species programs:

  • If developing a SAFE species program across multiple SSPs, recruit motivated individuals that think creatively and are looking for opportunities to accomplish more with their programs. 
  • Inviting organizations outside the SSP to join discussions can bring diverse perspectives and experience, and a conservation planning facilitator could also provide guidance while pulling together everyone’s ideas.
  • Develop well defined goals for what stakeholders want to get out of the program. The One Plan Approach may be really useful. 
  • Start fresh.  Do not let the politics, mission, or previous work of the SSP shape the SAFE program, but rather build your program strategically from the ground up.
  • Similarly, rather than seeing SAFE as a new name for your work as an SSP, how can new resources and collaborative conservation planning help you recruit new organizations to participate and rally more diverse conservation activities for zoo and aquarium staff and guests?

Photo Credit
Middle: © Casey Phillips, Tennessee Aquarium
Bottom: © Thom Benson, Tennessee Aquarium

Beth Schaefer is the general curator at the Los Angeles Zoo and serves on the Wildlife Conservation Committee.

Mandi Schook is the science operations manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and serves on the Animal Population Management Committee.


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